Thinking back on a guest lecture I gave last week, it occurred to me a conversation I had in the classroom with some students. The topic of discussion was the Middle English mystic, Margery Kempe, with respect to a research trend that concerns her and that I am observing. This trend is mainly related to the interpretation of her religious visions from a quasi-psychiatric perspective. In particular, scholars tend to see Margery's motherhood –she was the mother of fourteen– under der species of a wide range of possible mental diseases, from postpartum depression onwards. This is something that also emerged in the class which struck me because of its intrinsic unfruitfulness.
To me, playing the game of the 'retrospective diagnostician' is not an option, neither from a literary nor a historical point of view. In the second case, since bodies function differently in the past, it is not really possible to establish a true parallel between the past and the present with all that entails. Instead, from a literary perspective, by identifying a unique cause at the basis of Margery's authorship, we run the risk to reduce all the complexity of her literary work to a unique cause. Had I to describe it, I would say it is a funnel whose shape perfectly depicts the underlying process we see here.
In abstract, if we accept the idea that a phenom is primarily caused by one trigger, we accept not only to see the phenomenon under the species of consequentialism but also accept to reduce the spectrum of the possible interpretations. This operation is not something new, and yet it has systematically been employed as a strategy of delegitimisation, as in the case of Nietzsche, whose fragile mental health constituted a pretext for the early commentators to discredit the validity of his thought.
Once again, we are in front of a funnel that oversimplifies the beautiful complexity of literary reality through the superimposition of a cause upon which all the rest irradiates. Arguments as such are also quite weak and therefore easy to disproven because of their superficiality. The panacea at this point is one and only one, and it was implicitly elaborated by Lakoff in one of his most famous political essays, Don't Think of an Elephant (2004). His proposal is not to reduce everything to sterile antagonisms between different political affiliations but to create a proficuous political debate based on concrete multiple issues. This is valid either for both political and literary discourse and challenges the tyranny of a too-simplistic funnel model.
Lakoff, George. Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004.